Terence Crawford: The Alpha Dog at Welterweight

In his last bout, on October 12th, WBO welterweight champion Terence Crawford successfully defended his title when, after five close rounds against Jose Benavidez, Jr., he adapted and morphed his style and dominated the action from the sixth round on, en route to stopping his taller and younger foe with eighteen seconds left in the fight. Before the bout, Crawford was in the running—along with WBA lightweight titlist Vasyl Lomachenko—for the distinction of being the best fighter in boxing.

Benavidez was the fifth undefeated opponent Crawford has beaten in a title bout (over three weight divisions) and he’s now 12-0 (9) in world title bouts. Since the fight, however, it’s been a theme for some critics to excoriate Benavidez for not being a worthy challenger. This is the same Benavidez who, sparring with Manny Pacquiao at sixteen, Freddie Roach bragged about, saying the youngster had held his own. That’s right: eleven years ago Pacquiao was twenty-nine years old and months away from scoring the signature win of his career by stopping Oscar De La Hoya in eight rounds. The Benavidez who Crawford dismantled grew into one of the physically biggest welterweights in the world and was a twenty-six-year-old man entering the bout 27-0 (18).

Crawford holds a legitimate title in one of boxing’s most stacked divisions. The other title holders at 147 are Errol Spence (IBF), a fighter driven mostly by his power and aggression; Shawn Porter (WBC) who usually fights as an all-out attacker, but who is vulnerable to boxers with movement and good punch placement; and Keith Thurman (WBA), who does most things well but isn’t exceptional at any of them. Spence and Thurman, like Crawford, are undefeated, but in the opinion of most fight observers, a battle between Spence and Crawford will decide who is the top dog at 147. In Spence’s last bout he stopped undefeated Carlos Campo (who would be a huge underdog if he were matched against Benavidez) in the first round—yet why wasn’t he taken to task for defending his title against a fighter so far out of his league? That’s probably a result of Spence being viewed as a destroyer. Then again, big punchers are always overrated and look sensational taking out second-tier opposition. And while they’re undefeated they look as if they’ll never lose—until they do and then, after they lose, people say how there were questions about them that were never answered until their first setback.

Crawford, 34-0 (25), matches up well with the other titleholders at 147. We know how great Crawford is—as opposed to unanswered questions still hovering over Spence. Spence is an aggressive, persistent attacker who believes in his power and goes to the body as well as any fighter in boxing. However, Spence is there to be hit, his offense isn’t very imaginative, and if he is vulnerable to Crawford fighting him as a southpaw, he will be peppered like he never has before (and how he’ll react to that is anyone’s guess). The thing Crawford has in his favor is that he knows exactly what Spence brings and how he’ll attempt to fight him; the reverse can’t be said regarding Spence. Crawford has the diversity to switch things up in the middle of any round, and that could bewilder Spence if things start going against him.

As for Thurman fighting Crawford, he doesn’t have that one weapon or tool that Crawford couldn’t neutralize or offset. If they were to meet, Thurman would assume the role of fighting as the puncher and Crawford would counter him at every turn. Thurman’s only shot would be to apply his apparent strength advantage, something that’s much easier said than done against Crawford. What would hurt Thurman most against Crawford is that he’s too complacent in the ring for a live wire like “Bud.”

As for Shawn Porter, he would use his football mentality and would try and charge his way through Crawford. The problem is that Crawford would see everything and react to it by getting to Porter first or by making him miss. And Porter’s overaggression would lead to him getting hit often and cleanly by Crawford, which would eventually give him just enough trepidation to create a situation in which Crawford would soon be the one initiating the exchanges—and once Porter is forced into reacting instead of pressing the action, he’d become a rudderless ship dead in the water.

Crawford is the top pound-for-pound fighter in boxing, yet some still have their “perfect” list with Vasyl Lomachenko ahead of him and fighters such as Mikey Garcia, Canelo Alvarez, and Gennady Golovkin nipping at his heels. But the case for Crawford being number one is overwhelming.

Crawford is the most stylistically versatile fighter in the sport. There’s nothing in a boxing ring that Lomachenko, Garcia, Canelo, or Golovkin can do that Crawford can’t do, and he has a higher boxing IQ than any one of them. No one forces their opposition to fight away from their strengths as routinely as Crawford does. How many fighters can that be said about—not just today, but in history? Golovkin showed for twelve rounds during the first Canelo bout that if forced to fight a mover he’s not nearly the same killer. And in their rematch, the unthinkable occurred and he was forced to back away and fight in retreat. Lomachenko can be roughed up and taken out of his game. Yes, he’s improved since fighting Orlando Salido; but he does the same thing every time out, and that’s crowd his opponents and force them to punch across their body from their blind side and then counter them. What’ll happen when he encounters a fighter who forces him back and he has to adjust to their physicality? It’s unlikely he can adapt equally from both sides like Crawford can—and actually has—against title-unification-level opposition.

Everything Crawford does has a purpose to set up the next move; while Lomachenko. aside from his great footwork and positioning, does things that are more for show. To the crowd that likes fighters who look differently, I definitely see why he’s their guy—but Crawford has won by fighting and slugging, from range or on the inside, and from a conventional stance or as a southpaw, against fighters with varying styles.

There’s no kryptonite for Crawford. He’s rangy with the ability to throw every punch from every angle from either side or any stance. He also has the capacity to process what his opponent is doing faster than any other active fighter—just ask Julius Indongo. If you attack and go after him, he’ll hit you from unconventional angles and counter you while you’re reloading and searching for an answer. He’s murder on the inside and if you think you can draw him to you looking for the counter, he can attack and pivot to land his best finishing shots. He is equally effective fighting as the attacker and defending while right- or left-handed, and he possesses fight altering power from either side. And perhaps the thing I like most about him is how, in the same manner as former undisputed welterweight champ Sugar Ray Leonard, seldom do his opponents’ punches go unanswered.

Crawford looks to be getting stronger with each fight. He punches hard because he gets great leverage and accuracy on his shots. No matter how hard you fight and go after him, he always has another gear for separation. And don’t get him mad because in the ring he’s a mean guy, as we saw him show no mercy to Benavidez when he was going in for the kill after dropping him with one of the handful of uppercuts he threw during the bout. Sure, we might see him get dropped down the road, but that’s because he’s like Sugar Ray Leonard in that he’s always looking to attack, and any fighter with that mindset can get clipped in the process. But if he gets up, you better start your car and get out of there.

The welterweight division better be on alert: Terence Crawford has arrived. The fight in the welterweight division the boxing world is waiting for is Crawford-Spence or Spence-Crawford. And if it happens it’ll remind many of the 1981 Showdown between WBC champ Sugar Ray Leonard and WBA champ Thomas Hearns, with Crawford in the role as Leonard and Spence emulating Hearns. And that fight, after some rough patches along the way, was ultimately won by Leonard, who proved to be the more complete and stylistically adaptable fighter. A theme that very well might be the case when Crawford and Spence eventually meet. Like Leonard going into the Hearns fight, Crawford has been more battle-tested than Spence and can win under different scenarios by boxing and countering with the right movement, as opposed to Spence, who can only win by imposing his presumed advantage in strength and punching power.

If they were to meet in the next year, the edge goes to Crawford, but it wouldn’t be automatic—and if there’s anything that can neutralize Crawford’s advantages, it’s Spence’s physicality.